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First-generation students blaze new path in CSUB's 'The First Degree'

College years can be tough on any young adult, but the challenges facing many first-generation students can be unique. Often the first in their families to pursue higher education, they balance the demands of family and heritage with courses and work. That journey is explored in the new show "The First Degree," playing this week at Cal State Bakersfield.

The production was commissioned to be part of this year's One Book Project, the communitywide reading and discussion project led by the Kern County Library along with numerous partners including CSUB, which makes the selected book part of its First-Year Experience Program, which helps incoming freshman transition into college life.

This year's primary read is "A Dream Called Home" by Reyna Grande, a memoir about her journey from an undocumented immigrant who overcomes numerous obstacles to become the writer she always knew she could be.

"The First Degree," written by CSUB grad and former instructor Michael Mejia, serves as a companion story, following four first-generation college students (played by Brianna Garcia, Bradley Ross, Denica Nabor and Samuel Nubery) through their four years of college, meeting the demands of family and school.

"This is a different story for me," Mejia wrote in an email. "I wanted to highlight the cyclical nature of the school year and life itself. It was very important to me to really highlight how when you are doing anything for the first time in the history of your family, you are breaking ground and it is hard, but you wouldn't be there if it weren't for the people who put you in a position to keep moving forward.

"It's looking at where you are, where you want to go and acknowledging all the people and love that got you there."

Director Mandy Rees said she was surprised by how many first-generation students are at CSUB, noting that at past commencements, when CSUB President Lynnette Zelezny has asked those students to make themselves known, that "a sea of hands go up."

"A lot of our students are breaking ground in their families, with the support of their families," Rees said. "They're paving the way for their brothers and sisters, and sometimes their parents, to get degrees."'

Mejia said he tried to pull from his experiences both going to school in Kern County and the people I went to school with, noting that Kern County is "full of talent and incredible minds."

"I had the privilege of teaching playwriting at CSUB last semester and I was blown away by the talent and openness this community can foster," he wrote.

The show also features students Oliviya Chandrasiri, Yecenia Chavez, Khloe Eoff, Jan Mateo Tugab, Aaron Valencia and Timothy Zuniga, alumna Alyssa Wiley and faculty Judd Johnson and Chris Eicher.

For performers returning to live theater after months experimenting with virtual forms, having some seasoned cast members is a benefit, Rees said. 

"The students learn from the more experienced actors. That’s a good training experience for them to work alongside them."

Mejia said he hopes audiences leave the theater feeling seen and that they are able to connect with the material.

"I hope they leave thinking about what another person might be experiencing and then find the ways they relate to them," he wrote. "The world needs more empathy and the theatre is the perfect place to engage with another person's story."

Both Mejia and Rees encourage everyone to take advantage of the return of live theater, which has been a great relief for cast and crew.

"Support your local theatres and performers," he wrote. "Netflix will be there when you get back home. A play happens now."

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter at @realstefanidias.

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